Life and death of the knowledge industry

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The quality conundrum

WHOM TO TRUST for food for thought? In a confusing world, we are left to opt for one dominant pattern of behavior or the other: to lock ourselves into a bubble, where increasingly prolific media churn out large quantities of whatever material we want to ingest, to fit our interests or emotions; or to drift in limbo, bouncing off such comfort zones in search of bits and pieces of palatable knowledge more suited to a discerning diet. You feast on sweet corroboration, or scavenge for smidgens of reason.

There is another, more practical way of putting the question: “why is it so hard to access high-quality intellectual content that meets our desire for making sense of troubling trends and events?” Indeed, it has become paradoxically difficult to do so, at a time when cognitive needs, analytic talent, archival references, knowledge-producing institutions, communication tools, and publication platforms are all in abundance. On the face of it, humankind has never been so well-equipped to decipher and rationalize the world, and yet wisdom appears as elusive as ever. Leaving aside the existential interrogations this may raise, there are prosaic explanations for our ongoing failure to obtain content as meaningful as we would hope, and possible remedies too.

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Inflation

In analyzing what might be broadly termed the “knowledge production industry,” a first point of note is the increasing volumes of content. This upward trend has several causes. The first is an unprecedentedly low barrier to entry in a market where virtually anyone can publish. Technology played a key role in this respect, through a string of innovations including the personal computer, the internet, the multiplication and diversification of elaborate self-publishing and social media platforms that rest on members simultaneously acting as compulsive content-consumers and producers.

Such low barriers impact both the volume and quality of publications. The market is no longer organized solely around gate-keepers—professional, dedicated outfits such as periodicals and publishing houses that determine what reaches the public, imposing uneven but relatively high standards for style, structure, relevance, fact-checking and so on. In today’s free for all, the prevalence of such quality control mechanisms is greatly diminished; the reach of self-styled publishers depends mostly on their ability to connect with the audience directly, which often has more to do with the reader’s tastes and emotional state than the quality of work per se.

Inflation has economic roots too, as the industry-wide proliferation of content punishes whoever stays small. As traditional sales and subscriptions decrease, monetization is largely contingent on clicks (as a yardstick for advertising), email sign-ups (key to contemporary marketing) and the holy grail of buzz (through social media amplification). On all three accounts, volume is key: the more you produce, the more visible you are, the more people register, the greater the chances of a hit.

Big data feedback, which has taken center stage in most economic visions, mercilessly ascertains that business is driven by volume. Publishing platforms adapt accordingly, by ramping up their derivative products, extending their interface with the public across all available social media, and seeking content that literally “clicks” with their audience. That in itself is partly unpredictable, making for a multiplication of attempts: even traditional publishing houses now release many more books to maximize chances of a best-seller.

Two related trends contribute to inflation. On one side, an industry of remarkably cheap content has developed to support this shift, espousing a “Uber” principle. Rather than hire, digital news portals pay minimal fees to young professionals reporting in the field; 150 USD for a paper involving intensive research and interviews has become normal. Various consultancies follow a similar logic, hardly compensating an army of stringers who suck up precarious work conditions in the hopes of kick starting their career. Meanwhile, entirely free content is increasingly available to publishers too, from experts volunteering opinions, to “citizen journalists” driven by a cause, through to casual social media users endlessly generating more material for circulation.

On the other side, publishers pay—presumably more than ever—to reach the public, creating the bizarre scenario in which organizations routinely pay to disseminate free content. Advertising products is not new, but as the market has moved away from the interface of bookstores or newsstands, the rise of social media has introduced a novel dimension: platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook capture a broad base of regular users, which they then farm to content producers. Indeed, think tanks, journals and individuals may, for a fee, sponsor their own work to help it swim to the surface. Major newspapers likewise purchase a “channel” with Snapchat to gain exposure to a coveted youthful public—with free substantive content serving principally as substratum for commercial advertising.

The escalating struggle for visibility has created a bewildering situation, leaving content consumers unsure how to adjust. Bitter complaints about social media often come from people who spend most time on them. Many feel that there is so much to read that they hardly read anymore, skimming to keep up, while fantasizing about having the time to stop and go deeper. A surprising number of academics and pundits admit that they do not have the leisure to delve into fully-fledged books written by their peers, while hoping theirs will have a sizeable audience.

In the prevailing pandemonium, there seems to be no obvious go-to-place for anything consistent and reliable. This creates, in turn, a sense of disillusionment and fatigue among individuals forced to navigate such inflation. What these consumers generally do not realize, however, is how much they contribute to sustaining and intensifying the problem.

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Defection

We treat the volumes of poor material reverberating around the web and into our mail boxes as an external aggression we must defend against, when it is, to a large extent, a plight of our own making. As an audience, by and large, we have become demanding, opportunistic and flippant. We expect content to be both high-quality and free. We defer long reads for lack of time, and rarely finish what we start, as our attention span plummets. We prefer visuals over text. We increasingly reject any form of loyalty, given the proliferation of options available. Predominantly, we turn to a crowdsourced form of selection and rating, in which our networks’ response to content flags it to our attention based on algorithms.

There are obvious downsides to this mechanism. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like are not designed to promote quality. Quite the contrary: the feedback on a sophisticated article or documentary will always be dwarfed by individual portraits, personal announcements, cute videos and entertaining factoids. Even a discerning public rewards such content much more than the meaningful, laborious products to which we claim to aspire. The result is that, when the latter do come into being, we are forced to spend considerable time fishing them out from a sea of lighter content.

This dynamic inevitably shapes the knowledge production market. On one side, the struggle for visibility translates into shorter and more visual content and derivatives. This evolution wouldn’t necessarily be damaging, if it didn’t come at the expense of deeper research and reporting. But it does. Even a model like Buzzfeed, which generates mountains of trash while reinvesting a fraction of its benefits in high-quality investigations, ultimately serves to dilute what is left of good journalism.

On the other side, reaching the public entails evermore self-promotion. Authors, to expand their base of followers, must “engage” with them relentlessly, which also means producing or circulating more content. Publicizing work across multiple social media platforms is a must. Creative advertising via teasers, graphic design or visualization techniques gives an edge. This obligation to clamor adds up into growing volumes of noise. It is the intellectual equivalent of the Larsen effect—when sound from a loudspeaker feeds back into a microphone, in a screeching loop that sends us diving for cover.

The best solution we have found so far is a tad archaic: we specifically “follow,” on social media, individual sources of interesting and hopefully reliable insight. But our broader networks typically expand faster than we can master, obscuring those curators. Moreover, the time we spend sifting through the clutter eats up what leisure we have to delve into the most meaningful work anyway.

The ”free content” economy brings up another issue: the economic model on which production rests. Researchers, reporters and commentators must, one way or another, support themselves financially, through an “industry” generating resources. But most streams of funding appear increasingly detached from quality or relevance.

Advertising naturally is a function of “clicks” and “views,” which govern journalism a bit more every day, but the same logic permeates segments of the knowledge production market that, on the face of it, are not directly subjected to the reign of publicity. Increasingly, budgets ascribed to academic research centers and think tanks are attached to expectations taking the form of “metrics”—the number of peer-reviewed articles published in a year, for instance, or the volume of briefings and interviews churned out by an expert. The premium placed on fundraising means that hires, fires and promotions can depend on measurable output more than qualitative value.

Another source of capital is deployed in pursuit of conventional wisdom, which doesn’t add much, by definition, to what we think we know already. Across the knowledge industry, investments and subsidies all too often follow gregarious trends, making for production that evolves in fits and fads. A refugee crisis, for instance, can prompt an overwhelming wave of research, which typically yields its lessons-learned only after the topic of discussion has moved on, and nonetheless concentrates finite resources at the expense of a whole spectrum of other subjects worthy of attention. Catchy concepts, as is the case with the ill-defined notion of “preventing violent extremism”, cause similar overkill and side effects.

Another stream of funding doesn’t aim at generating any understanding at all. Various business models, in policy-research, economics or management consulting, essentially revolve around legitimizing preexisting assumptions. Our propensity to warehouse documentation also underwrites many, costly institutional subscriptions that remain extraordinarily underused.

Box-checking extends to a variety of fields. Many media are satisfied with pundits who fit their formats, regardless of the strength of their arguments. Even the philanthropic, aid and development sector, which plays a key role in sustaining the knowledge production industry, is not always the lifeline it once was—and which it could be. Increasingly, research is relegated to secondary functions, such as surveys delegated to lesser operators in a chain of subcontractors, or monitoring & evaluation focused on the impact of operational programming that already occurred anyway.

Deep, hard-headed, proactive, contextual analysis is something of an oddity among donors and grant-makers, even though they increasingly draw on catchwords pertaining to “needs”, “evidence” and “results.” Growing fatigue with in-depth intellectual products makes it easier, arguably, to raise 100 000 dollars to organize a two-day conference than to conduct a groundbreaking investigation over a year. On the face of it, gathering 25 renowned experts in a room may give funders more bang for their buck, but it doesn’t answer the question: how do participants resource, in the period that precedes the event, the fieldwork required to share meaningful findings around the table?

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Erosion

The challenge in maintaining high standards in the knowledge industry always circles back to human capital. We cannot depend solely on talented individuals who somehow follow and grasp events better than average, and reverberate their insight around the web. Competence isn’t an accident, but rather the outcome of deliberate, collective investment. This is, perhaps, where the industry is most dangerously at risk.

There can be no underestimating the sheer costs of quality research and reporting. A high-performing news correspondent can easily represent a 250 000 dollar annual expenditure, inclusive of salary, benefits, fieldwork, support staff and various forms of overhead. A junior researcher may earn less than 30 000; but throw in the resources needed for transportation, proper mentoring, management, and so on, and he or she will total 75 000 a year in an organization’s budget. This stands in stark contrast to articles paid in the low hundreds, or ten-page reports commissioned to freelancers and compensated as little as 1 500.

The industry is increasingly split—not unlike the global economy itself—between a small caste of privileged employees and an army of underdogs competing to make it to a more rewarding job. The happy few are no doubt praiseworthy, but—precisely because they are a luxury in an industry in crisis—they are also expected to do more than they can deliver. Some foreign correspondents write so much that they have no time to actually report, and must instead rely on social media feeds, calls to a rolodex of usual suspects, and rehashed material already on the web. Many academics spend a crucial part of their time fundraising for the institutions that employ them. Think tank employees are likewise under pressure, often at the cost of solid fieldwork.

Meanwhile, as discussed above, coverage tends to reflect the economic inflections of the market—thus the concentration of available means around conventional priorities. Massification around a given conflict or crosscutting topic also results from, and reflects, a shrinking interface with the world in all its complexity: publications big on international affairs deploy astonishingly few correspondents abroad; thorough investigative journalism has waned to the point of warranting a charitably-sponsored niche market; think tanks have a decreasing global footprint, despite foreign-based outlets designed to suggest otherwise; and academia struggles to resource long-term immersive fieldwork. In this context, intense competition to get into, or remain in, reasonably secure positions doesn’t favor creative or disruptive thinking.

A particularly troubling aspect of the current state of affairs in the knowledge industry is how little attention is paid to training. Most skills are acquired and honed on the job, in ad hoc fashion. The process requires appropriate management and mentoring on the part of senior professionals who themselves lack bandwidth and relevant managerial honing. News agencies hardly train the army of stringers they draw upon; editors are often forced by time constraints to rewrite more than they edit; and some consultancies exploit young graduates for their ability to synthesize material they garner on the web, while failing to invest in their research capacities proper.

There are numerous signs of reinvention within the sector, and intriguing experiments underway, but few genuine success stories to report so far. Some well-established journals, such as The New York Times and The Economist, have been adapting efficiently to an evolving market, blending old-fashioned assets with digital savvy. Others, like Vox or Quartz, have grown out entirely from the virtual public space, capturing a large audience—and proportionate advertising shares—with quality reporting. But the business model of the large majority of platforms engaged in deciphering the world is either ambiguous or unsustainable. France offers two outstanding examples: XXI, which credibly claims to combine the best of journalism with the best of editing, does so without hiring staff—simply commissioning freelancers; Orient XXI, a unique and widely-read website devoted to insightful, trilingual reporting on the Arab world, owes much to retired professionals working pro bono.

The Uberisation of the industry extends to consultancies, think tanks and development agencies, who routinely supplement staff output with thrifty subcontracting of research and writing. A vivacious “knowledge brokering” sector has in recent years emerged around the need to connect clients with a question to experts with an answer, under terms that only make economic sense if the knowledge providers have other sources of income. In sum, what we are witnessing, across the board, is a distortion between ever more intellectual output for ever less input, with increasingly obvious impact on overall quality. This in turn has created expanding space for highly partisan research and reporting outfits who combine extreme forms of bias with deceptive professionalism and financial firepower.

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A sectoral reset

The knowledge industry has in many ways been giving a bad name to itself, contributing to a general sense of disenchantment and disaffection that further damages its prospects, in a self-reinforcing loop. To arrest this downward spiral, a sectoral reset is in order. As in any other context, it will not occur fast or unanimously. Rather, it will proceed from a small coalition of discerning producers and consumers.

First, forward-thinking elements among the public, whose role is indispensable even in a non-monetary relationship, must come to terms with their own responsibility in sustaining the kind of quality they believe they are owed. Ultimately, the public will receive what it roots for—from videos of puking cats to resource-intensive investigations. Tilting the balance toward the latter will be a collective enterprise, in which the audience must, at a minimum, contribute forms of moral support and consumer loyalty, find time to stop and make use of what quality work is indeed available, and actively promote valuable content.

Second, a core segment of the industry’s paying clients, patrons and benefactors must think through exactly what is expected from knowledge production, what are the needs it fulfills, and what precisely is required to fulfill them. When such clients engage in behavior as flippant as the public’s, the end result will be a downward spiral from which everyone stands to lose. Currently, fatigue with existing outfits is leading precious capital to be invested into new structures: banks, insurance agencies and several billionaires are developing research capacities on global issues, for instance, which have yet to prove their value-added. What would help is a more consistent, mature, realistic and stable vision, flowing from an open discussion, rather than random attempts at disruption.

Finally, knowledge producers have much soul-searching to do. The absence of any serious, solemn self-criticism on the part of their mainstream representatives is astounding. As budgets shrink, competition intensifies and consumer disaffection grows more patent, there hardly has been an attempt at analyzing our collective failures. It is time to look into ways of resisting deleterious market trends, reinvesting in human capital, and addressing the lack of both cooperation and constructive emulation within the industry.

Such introspection, starting with a hardheaded review of best and worst practices, is a matter of survival; it is also a no-brainer if we are to retain a capacity to intellectualize and navigate global change at a critical juncture. This open-source platform aims to serve as a small step in that direction; Synaps, for its part, ambitions to band up with others to lay some of the foundations of a much-needed reinvention. The knowledge industry, for one thing, has all the brainpower it takes to have a refreshing discussion.

17 May 2017

Enjoy the occasional, thoughtful boost to your output!

On the back of the above overview, we are collecting examples of best and worst practices in the knowledge industry, to include journalistic reporting, academic research and consulting. We will protect the information we receive and process it responsibly, in a detailed and constructive appraisal of the sector’s glaring shortcomings and potential for reinvention. Write us at inbox@synaps.world or reach out to any individual Synaps staff member you may know. Importantly, please help us fan out beyond our own network and spread the word!

Illustration credit: Lotto Capoferri Magnum Chaos by Wikipedia; Thomas Cole The Course of Empire by Wikipedia / licensed by CC. 

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